Whose Fault Is It?

Why blaming can be dangerous—and taking responsibility empowering.

Posted Apr 19, 2019

Liz* had been planning a long weekend away for a month. She was super excited about getting out of the city and into the country, but on the Friday afternoon when she was supposed to leave, she decided that she was just too tired to drive. “I’ll get to bed early and leave early tomorrow morning,” she told the friend she was meeting. “I’m disappointed to miss the first night there, but I’d rather not take the risk of driving when I’m this exhausted.”

123rf stock 102258709 Aleksandr Davydov
Source: 123rf stock 102258709 Aleksandr Davydov

Marc* was out drinking late one night. He felt fine, but he knew he’d put away quite a lot of alcohol. When one of his friends said, “Let me have your keys. I haven’t been drinking tonight. I’ll drive you home, and you can pick up your car from me tomorrow,” he thought about protesting that he was fine and that he could drive. But he trusted his friend’s perception and gave him the keys.

Annette* was driving when her phone beeped that she had a text message. “I had to check,” she said. “It might have been important.” She wrecked her car while texting back to a friend who had wanted to know about their plans for the weekend. 

Driving is only one example of the ways in which we make choices and either do or don’t accept responsibility for those choices, but there are many, many other examples that occur every day of our lives. I was reminded of these three incidents when I read a recent article by Dan Solomon about athletes overcoming adversity.  

Solomon suggests that there are two very different categories of problems that these athletes have to deal with. One is something that they bring on themselves. The other is something that happens to them. He gives a number of examples, starting with professional golfer Tiger Woods’ recent celebrated overcoming of personal, physical, and competitive struggles to win his fifth Masters title. 

Solomon writes, “The adversity Woods is famous for overcoming...wasn’t something that happened to him. It was something that he did.”

The difference between something that happened to us and something we did is important. As the driving examples indicate, it applies not just to athletes, but to all of us. It is also a distinction that is far subtler and more complicated than it might seem at first.

“Something that happened to us” often implies that we had no choice, while “something we did” tends to indicate that we are responsible for the actions. An accident that occurs when we drive when we’re tired, under the influence of some substance, or texting doesn’t just happen to us. It is the result of something we actually did—or some safety precaution we decided not to heed. 

Psychologically, this difference can mean not only making decisions that enhance our well-being, but also recognizing that we have the power to make those choices. Understanding that you have the ability to influence what happens in your life is what we call “agency.” Having a sense of agency can improve your feelings about yourself and your life. Feeling that you have agency can make you feel successful, happy, and contented.

Blaming others is one way of avoiding responsibility. On the surface, it seems to let you off the hook, and it can make you feel better in the short term. Years ago, a little girl I was working with would explain away her own misbehavior by saying, “I can’t help it. That’s the way my mommy made me.” It was super cute and initially got her out of trouble, which of course was the goal. But blaming her mom for her behavior did not help her take charge or change what she was doing. As often happens when someone uses blaming as a way of avoiding responsibility, her problems got significantly worse. 

While she blamed others for what happened to her, she felt as though she was protecting herself from criticism, but refusing to take responsibility for your own actions can keep you stuck in a painful place. According to the Harvard Center on the Developing Child, children learn to be resilient when they learn to take responsibility at age-appropriate levels and with the support of a caring adult. Such responsibility gives them a sense that they can have an influence on their environment. 

Researchers have found that people who take realistic responsibility for themselves, for both the good and the bad, are less likely to be depressed than people who blame others for their problems. The reason for this isn’t rocket science. Accepting responsibility means you recognize that you have some control over yourself and your circumstances; and feeling that you have some control gives you more of a sense of competence and capability, even if sometimes you make bad choices and do things you would rather not have done.  

Agency does not mean that you have total control, of course. But one of the important points that I think Solomon was getting at is that when you accept responsibility for what you do, you can also let yourself off the hook for things that actually do happen to you. I don’t know where Tiger Woods stands in relation to the adversity that he has overcome. But he has clearly been working hard at his profession, which is often a sign that a person has a sense of agency.

Taking responsibility means understanding that your actions can make a difference. And that knowledge can make you feel better about yourself, even when you’re taking responsibility for something you wish you hadn’t done.  

*names and other identifying information changed to protect privacy